Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Debates
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
spectacle Arrow vol 3 no 1 contents
About borderlands Volume 3 Number 1, 2004

 


Triumph of the Spectacle


William McClure
Sydney Institute of Technology/Australian National University

 

Introduction

1. In Means without End: Notes on Politics, Giorgio Agamben pays tribute to Guy Debord. According to Agamben, one of the most disquieting features of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) and the Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle (1988) is the pin-point accuracy with which they describe the unfolding of world politics (Agamben 2000: 79). Central to this description, and as part of Debord’s attempt to chart the evolving domination of spectacular power in the twenty years between these two theoretical works, he claims that what the world has witnessed is the substantial unification of what were formerly two rival and successive forms of spectacular power: namely, the unification of the concentrated and diffuse spectacle to form the integrated spectacle (Debord 1998: 8). Agamben asks the question, "how can thought collect Debord’s inheritance today, in the age of the complete triumph of the spectacle?"(Agamben 2000: 81) Given that the spectacle is not simply identifiable with the representational machinery of mass media, but rather the agglomeration of the forces of capital, state and media, and further given that these forces do not merely conspire to create a distance between ordinary people and political events but have the more sinister impact of alienating the linguistic and communicative nature of human beings (2000: 115), what can be done in the face of such an overwhelming power? Indeed, what have we inherited from Debord to deal with the power of the spectacle?

2. In this paper I will begin by outlining Agamben’s reading of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the Commentaries, and then, in relation to some of my own efforts to create work in the area of anti-architectural performance, I want to consider how the central concern of the situationists, the ‘construction of situations’, might be considered as a way of dealing with the global spectacle. In doing this, I will also consider briefly, how unitary urbanism, ‘new architecture’ and psychogeography relate to the problem of the ‘constructed situation’. Using Agamben’s philosophy to interpret some of the practices involved in the construction of situations, I will seek to show how these practices cannot be attributed to a willing subject but instead entail an experience for which there is no assumed responsibility.

Society of the Spectacle

3. In answer to the question of "how thought can collect Debord’s inheritance today?" Agamben suggests that we can begin by identifying that what we encounter in the spectacle is an inversion of our own linguistic nature (2000: 81; 115). Or more pointedly, "the spectacle is language, the very communicativity and linguistic being of humans" (2000: 81). If one considers this statement in terms of a political economy as outlined in the Society of the Spectacle, it is clear that Debord does not make any explicit statement that would identify language itself with the spectacle. While it may be said that the spectacular state represents for Debord the absolute fulfilment of commodity fetishism, and thereby the fulfilment of the forms of domination of the commodity (eg. the triumph of exchange value over the use value of objects), Debord does not develop a notion of the spectacle that is identifiable with the linguistic being of humans; rather he considers the spectacle in terms of the problematics of time - equating the spectacle at its most general level with a "false consciousness of time" (Debord, 1970: ¶158). It is important therefore, that we understand what is at stake in Agamben’s refiguring of the notion of the spectacle and how this may assist in foreshadowing a reinterpretation of situationist practices.

4. Why does Agamben identify the spectacle with the very communicativity of humans? And how does this identification translate into a political economy as developed by Debord? To answer these questions it is necessary to note the central importance which a theory of commodity fetishism plays not only in the Society of the Spectacle, but also in Agamben’s reading of Debord. According to Debord, the principle of commodity fetishism, the domination of society by things tangible and intangible, "reaches its absolute fulfilment in the spectacle" (1970: ¶36). As Agamben points out, it was a remarkable gesture in the 1960’s (just when Marxist analysis had abandoned the first section of Capital - the section in which fetish character of the commodity is outlined) to base an analysis of capitalism’s most extreme forms of domination on commodity fetishism. For Agamben, Marx’s application of the term ‘fetishism’ to the ‘commodity’ in the first section of Capital, reveals a magical dimension to the forms of domination attributed to capital: all at once "the commodities ‘secret’" is disclosed and the "key that reveal[s] capital’s enchanted realm" to thought is revealed (2000: 75).

5. Baudrillard has argued that the concept of ‘commodity fetishism’, as originally used by Marx, sketched ‘the mode of sanctification, fascination and psychological subjection by which individuals internalised the general system of exchange value’ (Baudrillard, 1981: 88). As he points out, as an eclecticism derived from various primitive representations, the fetishist metaphor ‘consists of analysing myths rites and practices in terms of an energy, a magical transcendent power, a mana (whose latest avatar would possibly be the libido’ (1981: 89). In its early 18th century Christian/rationalist usage the term ‘fetishism’ had negative connotations used to condemn the animistic worship of earthly and material objects called fetishes (1981: 88). As applied by Debord, the fetish character of the commodity as it is realised in the spectacle provides a basis for analysing the affective dimensions of the spectacle and its progressive forms of domination and internal contradictions. In the spectacle, the ‘power’ which is attributed to the commodity is global and diffuse; it is transferred to all manner of beings, subjects and objects. The political economy of the society of the spectacle is developed in terms of a study of the strategic points at which this power crystallises and fixes the flux of all human activity so that it can be regulated and diverted by certain self-interested groups and individuals (Debord, 1970: ¶ 35).

6. As a way of analysing the unfolding events of capitalism, Agamben says that "we could say that world politics is nothing more than a hasty and parodic mise-en-scène of the script" contained in the Society of the Spectacle and the Commentaries (Agamben, 2000: 79). The question for him, therefore, is not so much whether Debord is correct in his analysis of world politics, but rather whether Debord’s notion of the spectacle, as it is linked to commodity fetishism, can assist in understanding the power which operates in the current forms of capitalism. Can Debord’s analysis of the structure and affective forms of domination be given more clarity by linking the power at work in commodity fetishism with the power and potentiality of the linguistic being of humans? The legitimacy of this question is strengthened by virtue of the fact that in the contemporary state it is precisely the communicative essence, constituted as an autonomous sphere, which has become an "essential factor of the production cycle" (2000: 115). For Agamben, by linking the power of the Spectacle more clearly to an alienation and expropriation of the linguistic and communicative essence, not only are we given access to an analysis which deepens our understanding of the nihilistic forces at work in the Spectacle, we are also introduced to a messianic potentiality at the heart of language.

7. In the ‘The Idea of Language’ (1984), Agamben states that "contemporary thought has approached a limit beyond which a new epochal-religious unveiling of the word no longer seems possible" (Agamben 1999a: 45). No longer can the name ‘God’ be applied to the estranged communicative essence, and no longer can it operate as the presuppositional grounding of a community. Whereas in former political regimes this estranged communicative essence was substantiated as a presupposition and could take on the name of ‘God’, ‘Greek’ etc., now we find ourselves alone with our words (1999a: 45). There is now, no name for the name, and by extension there is no name for what "Benjamin defines as ‘pure language’ (reine Sprache) or the pure language of names" (1999a: 51). As part of what Agamben might describe as the trial of nihilism (2000: 77) or alternatively an initiation into life (1999a: 78) "we now look without veils upon language". Whereas de Man and Wittgenstein would have considered the experience of the limits of language as offering no hope for the founding of a new ethics or community, Agamben considers such an experience, the experimentum linguae, to carry with it the potentiality for a positive possibility (2000: 85; See Deladurantaye, 2000: 3 for a further exploration of this difference).

8. Precisely because it is our communicative essence which is expropriated in the spectacle, the spectacle also "contains something like a positive possibility". As the human beings who live in the age which, "for the first time, it is possible to experience our linguistic essence" we have also the task to use the positive possibility against the spectacle (2000: 115). Just as "contemporary politics is precisely this devastating experimentum linguae that disarticulates and empties, all over the planet, traditions and beliefs, ideologies and religions, identities and communities", it is also that which makes possible for the first time for human beings, the experience of not some language content or some proposition, but language itself (2000: 84.5).

9. How then are we to take up this task of using the positive possibility which is offered us in the spectacle? In this respect Agamben says that Debord’s Society of the Spectacle and the Commentaries should be treated as ‘the work of a peculiar strategist’ and as ‘manuals’ or ‘instruments of resistance or exodus’ (2000: 73). The ‘constructed situation’ [the central concern of the Situationist International (SI)], he suggests, can provide the ‘messianic shift that integrally changes the world, leaving it almost intact’ (2000: 79). But what is a ‘constructed situation’? And how is it possible for the constructed situation to perform this messianic shift in which everything in fact stays the same but loses its identity? What model of agency is being proposed for those who are to construct the situation? Is the responsibility for the construction of the situation unassumable?

What is a ‘Constructed Situation’?

10. The first issue of Internationale Situationniste published in June 1958, put forward the following definition of a constructed situation: "A moment of life concretely and deliberately constructed through the collective organisation of a unified milieu and through the play of events" (cited in Agamben, 2000: 77). One way in which the aims and activities of the situationists might be understood is to see them as an extension of the artistic activity which took place immediately following World War II. The 1950’s witnessed the growth of assemblage , environments, and happenings, as well as funk and junk art - all of which involved the incorporation of the urban environment into works of art (see Kaprow: 1996 for an in depth study on this period). Indeed one might attempt to classify a ‘constructed situation’ as a type of urban installation piece in which the artist considers ways of intensifying the ambience or milieu of their lived environment. Or again, the constructed situation may be thought to be a precursor to the environmental and site-specific works which took place from the 1960’s on; works in which artists increasingly gave up painting urban scenes and landscapes to engage directly with those places. The works of Gordon Matta-Clark, who founded the New York based anarchitecture group (and who grew up in the company of Duchamp, Max Ernst and Breton), comes to mind. Working in dense city environments he manipulated urban spaces by taking down walls of buildings, cutting apart houses and turning them inside out and upside down (see Matta-Clark).

11. If we were to think of the ‘constructed situation’ as forming part of the history of art, Agamben points out that nothing would be more misleading than to think the situation "as a privileged or exceptional moment in the sense of aestheticism. The constructed situation is neither the becoming-art of life nor the becoming-life of art. . . We can only locate its true nature if we locate it historically in its proper place: that is after the end and self-destruction of art, and after the passage of life through the trial of nihilism" (2000: 77). This reference to the self-destruction of art is one often made by the Dada movement. The Dadaist Picabia expressed the state of nihilism perfectly in his Cannibal Manifesto (Richter, 1997: 180-181; Huelsenbeck, 1994: 55).

You are all indicted; stand up...
Stand up ...as if you were in the presence of Dada, which signifies Life...
What are you doing here, crammed in like a lot of serious-minded crustaceans...
Dada alone smells of nothing, it is nothing, nothing, nothing
It is like your hopes: nothing.
Like your paradise: nothing...
Like your artists: nothing
Like your religion: nothing

12. What does Agamben think is left of the ‘constructed situation’ after the trial of nihilism? Or in other words, what is left of life after it has been emptied of all presuppositional ground and content? As Lyotard has shown, Holderlin would have answered this question by saying, "that at the extreme limit of distress, there is in fact nothing left but the conditions of time and space" (Lyotard, 1991: 114), an answer with which Hegel would have agreed. The site-specific and environment works of James Turrel, one of my favourite artists, may be understood to fall into this category. Currently engaged in one of the most ambitious works of art ever undertaken by an individual, he is transforming the interior of a large extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. By means of a maze of tunnels, travelled by day and night, leading to various observation chambers he aims to create a visual disclosure of the interconnections between geological and astronomical time space. Would it also be misleading to think of the ‘constructed situation’ in these terms; that is, as an environment or site-specific work which draws our attention to the act of perceiving time and space? Perhaps the answer is ‘yes’. It would be misleading, because for Agamben, after the passage through the trial of nihilism life is stripped back to its ontological grounds; language is stripped back to its materiality and the body stripped back to its gestures. For Agamben, all that is left of life after the passage through the trial of nihilism is the experience of the there is of language which exceeds the representational modalities of space and time, and indeed the economy of presence and absence as bequeathed to us by philosophical and theological traditions (1999a: 217).

13. In this regard the constructed/situation may be understood as an ‘expressionless word’ or ‘pure language in which all communication and all meaning is extinguished’ (1999a: 53); it would function as a pure mise en scène, or auto-presentation of a pure visibility and sensibility, an absolute immanence which escapes the transcendence of both subject and object (1999a: 224). And it would do this not to draw attention to anything ‘which is’ or to that which is ‘real or ‘rational’, but rather to make felt or experience the ontological event of language itself. The constructed situation would embody and appeal to a mode of existence that is prior to the will and the ‘I’; in short, it would appeal to the potentiality of an affectibility without personality (1999a: 230). In achieving this, the ‘constructed situation’ would fulfil its messianic ends by breaking the enchanting hold of the spectacle and indeed the power of all visibility itself.

How is it possible to construct such a situation?

14. For the remainder of this paper, I wish to explore some of problems associated with the construction of situations. Quoting the SI definition of a ‘constructed situation’, Agamben reminds us that both capitalism and the situationists operate "concretely and deliberately" to organise environments and events - but with radically different outcomes. Capitalism depotentiates life while the situationists potentiate it. Furthermore, with the taking-place of the constructed event of the situationists a political possibility arises which exceeds the mere confrontation of two opposed systems - rather, it is the overthrowing (or overflowing) of one form of life by another: the overthrow of a depotentiated bare life by a potentiated happy one. Guy Debord has come close to expressing these thought in the following lines. Speaking of the activities of the SI, he said that the constructed situation and its organisers would merely provide for the detonation, while the free explosion expressed in a riot of social glossolalia would have to escape any control forever (Greil, 2001: 181-182). But how might such a situation be constructed?

15. If we return to the SI definition of the ‘constructed situation’, what is striking about it is the model of agency which it seems to present: the constructors of the situation are to act ‘concretely and deliberately’ to organise environments and events. To fully understand what model of agency is being proposed here, and indeed how or whether or not the constructors might assume responsibility for the messianic task at hand we first need to consider the activity of ‘construction’ in relation to the practices that were integral to it. The situationist movement produced a number of solutions to the central problem of constructing situations; Debord is seen by many contemporary situationists to have hijacked the movement placing too heavy an emphasis on theoretical analysis of the spectacle and thereby relegating the more immediate and practical kinds of action to oblivion (Blisset, 1994:1). I do not wish to concern myself with an historical account of the situationist movement here; rather, I want to focus on some of the more immediate practices and thereby move toward an understanding of how it might be possible to construct a situation.

16. Two practices were central to the construction of situations: the dérive and détournement. As defined by Debord, in his ‘Theory of the Dérive’, the dérive [literally: "drifting"] is a technique of rapid passage through varied urban ambiences involving playful and constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects. During a dérive one or more dériviste "would drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their usual motives for movement and action and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there’ (Debord, 1981: 45).

17. Détournement, as it was first defined by the situationists, was said to be the integration of present or past artistic productions into the superior construction of a milieu (Debord, 1981: 45). While the dérive was aimed at promoting a receptiveness to an existing psychogeography of an urban environment, détournement was intended as a critique and the first step in the construction of a situation. Essentially what is implied in this practice is the ‘rerouting’ or ‘recontextualising’ of objects, signs and words from their accepted contexts into new contexts so as to reveal new meanings. For Debord, while this practice had direct political implications it also had its ‘origins in poetry and poetic technique and represented the beginning of a literary communism, ‘a way of thinking and writing which aimed at total freedom’ (see: Hussey, 2002: 104). Since its first definition "détournement" has been variously described as a type of hijacking of accepted behaviour and received meaning in bourgeois cities; squatting, reclaiming the streets, graffiti-art, and punk are all said to be its expressions. Essentially it involved the linking of language and history: the making of meaning and the unmasking of meaning with the unmaking and making of history. As Greil defines it, détournement was ‘a politics of subversive quotation, of cutting the vocal cords of every empowered speaker, social symbols yanked through the looking glass, misappropriated words and pictures diverted into familiar scripts and blowing them up . . . The détournement of the right sign, in the right place at the right time, could spark a mass reversal’ (Greil, 2001: 179).

18. Concerning the dérive, while the dériviste has been compared to the 19th century Baudelaireian flâneur (a description which Arendt applies to Benjamin (Arendt, 1993:165)) this description misses some essential differences. The dériviste at best could be described as a subject in a state of serious decomposition; one who is not only undoing reflexive and habitual modes of moving through and relating to familiar and unfamiliar environments, but one who is also at times susceptible to suicide. Writing about the dérive in 1953 from an asylum for the insane, Ivan Chtcheglov said: it "is dangerous to the extent that the individual, having gone too far (not without bases, but . . .) without defences, is threatened with explosion, dissolution, disassociation, disintegration. And so the relapse into what is termed ‘ordinary life,’ which is to say, in reality, ‘petrified life’…In 1953-1954, we drifted for three or four months at a time: that’s the extreme limit, the critical point. It’s a miracle it did not kill us. We had a constitution - a bad constitution - of iron". (In Greil, 2001: 362)

19. How are we to re-interpret the dérive? And what type of model of agency is appropriate to it? If what is being practiced in the dérive by the situationists can be regarded as a form of discourse, then it is as Lyotard has described it, ontological. As he puts it, ontology presupposes the obscure illumination, that is, in it, Being and thinking are the same, what it phrases, Being, is also what is phrased through the mouth. As he puts it, the ontological phrase is above all the received phrase wherein the thinker of being is also its witness (Lyotard, 1988: 20). It is the discourse of poets and artists and as Agamben has shown it is one which does not properly include the perspective of the spectator and audience. Rightly speaking, says Agamben, the perspective of the spectator should not be insinuated into the concept of art, rather art is a matter for the artists and it is one which increasingly involves an experience of the uncanny in which what is put at stake is the life and death of the artist - or at least their spiritual wellbeing (Agamben, 1999b: 5).

20. Interestingly, there are a number of correspondences between the verb dérive and the Ladino reflexive active verb pasearse (an archaic Spanish spoken by the Sephardim at the time of their expulsion from Spain) - which is not translated as ‘to stroll’ or ‘to take a walk’, wherein an action is attributable to a subject, but ‘to walk-oneself’ (Agamben, 1999a: 234)]. As Agamben points out, as an action, pasearse is one in which it is "impossible to distinguish the agent from the patient (who walks what?)…means and end, potentiality and actuality, faculty and use enter a zone of indistinction" (1999a: 235). If we rethink the dérive in terms of pasearse then we also need to rethink the experience of the dériviste in terms of a transcendental empiricism which is an impersonal experience beyond and before any consciousness (1999a: 225): a pure immanence that is identified not with the life of the individual but an impersonal life summed up in Agamben’s lexicon by the term "bare life".

21. What is at stake in the dérive is the life of the dériviste. This is a life that coexists with the individual without being identical with her or him. Furthermore it is not merely a life that is experienced in the locality of the individual’s birth or death, but also in the action of the dérive thought as pasearse. In Agamben’s terms what is being thought here may be summed up in a number of ways, but most important is that the action involved in the dérive is one in which "potentiality coincides with actuality" (1999a: 225). To quote Heller-Roazen’s conclusions concerning Agamben’s concept of potentiality, it may be said that the dériviste is traversed by the "quiet power of the possible; not merely the ‘possible’ thought as the ‘represented possibilitas, nor potentia as the essentia of an actus of existentia, but rather [as] Being itself" (1999a: 18; 200). Or, again, to use Agamben description of pasearse, it may be said that the dériviste experiences the vertigo of immanence which is descriptive of the "infinite movement of the self-constitution and self-manifestation of Being: Being as pasearse" (1999a: 235).

22. In a broader sense both the dérive and détournement should be regarded as part of the Situationsts’ striving to generate and sustain social forms and structures of value independent of relations instituted under the society of the spectacle. Considering the dérive and détournement in terms of Agamben’s notion of potentiality draws attention not merely to what is actualised through such experiments but also to a suspension of action and being. What is important to note concerning the logic of potentiality is that all potentiality is first all an impotentiality - or stated differently, to be capable is first of all to be capable of an impotentiality (1999a: 182-183; 245). In this regard, potentiality is not to be thought (as is the custom) as merely a potentiality to be or do. If this were the case, potentiality would cease to be, it would already have passed over into actuality. Thus, impotentiality or incapacity constitutes the "originary structure" of potentiality. "Dynamis, potentiality, maintains itself in relation to its own privation. . . its own non-Being . . . To be potential means: to be one’s own lack, to be in relation to one’s own incapacity" (1999a: 182) From this it is possible to conclude that the Situationists were only capable of being and doing something else because they were capable of their own incapacity. Their refusal of work and art within capitalist relations of production may be taken as a sign of impotentiality at play. The dérive and détournement may be seen as part of their insistence on the autonomy of everyday life over against the violence of the Spectacle.

23. The experiential field encountered in a dérive does not belong to the world of Spectacle, but rather to the mind of the wanderer. If the dériviste acts, then this is not an act of will; if the dériviste suspends action then this is not to give into a necessity. As Agamben suggests, to believe that the will (either individual or collective) has "power over potentiality, that the passage to actuality is the result of a decision that puts an end to the ambiguity of potentiality (which is always potentiality to do and not to do) - this is the perpetual illusion of morality" (1999a: 254). The task of the dériviste is to bear witness to and then to engage in an act of remembrance recording the various ambiences by which he or she has been seized. These memories are then to be translated into the medium of a constructed situation whose aim is to inspire in others the same letting go as experienced by the original dériviste. Susceptible to being both impotentiality and act, in this state of mind the dériviste would approach that acute attentiveness attributed by Agamben to the infant. Speaking of the imagined infant, Agamben says that it is so:

completely abandoned to its own state of infancy, and so little specialised and totipotent that it rejects any specific destiny and any determined environment in order to hold onto to its immaturity and helplessness . . . The neotenic infant . . . would find himself in a condition of being able to pay attention precisely to what has not been written, to somatic possibilities that are arbitrary and uncodified; in this infantile totipotency, he would be ecstatically overwhelmed, cast out of himself, not like other living beings into a specific adventure or environment, but for the first time into the world. He would truly be listening to being. (Agamben, 1995: 96-97)

24. What has to be remembered when considering the appropriate experience for a dériviste, is that the situationists had their roots in the surrealist and Dada movements. With the surrealists, states of automatism assisted by the use of drugs and hypnotism were seriously thought to be a way to build on the ruins of Dada. Hypnotism was only abandoned with the attempted mass suicide of one their groups. If we take the state of mind by which the surrealists aimed to meet the post-Dada nihilistic universe seriously, it may be described in terms of the "poetical receptiveness" outlined by Heidegger (Heidegger, 1982: 59). Andre Breton in the Second Manifesto of Surrealism described it like this, "Everything suggests", he said:

that there exists a certain point of the mind at which life and death, the real and the imaginary, the past and the future, the communicable and the incommunicable, the heights and the depths, cease to be perceived contradictorily. Now it is vain that one would seek any other motive for surrealist activity than the hope of determining this point. (Breton, 1972: 117)

It may be said that it was from this point of the mind, this place of indistinction, a threshold between life and art, a moment of pure praxis, that the surrealists located themselves in the taking-place of what they wanted to overthrow. Likewise, it may be assumed the situationist did not approach the dérive like the Baudelaireian dandy out for a stroll but rather from a similar point of the mind.

25. To quickly grasp some understanding of the practices being undertaken here, and how Agamben might think that we are to gather up those practices for ourselves today, we may say that what is involved in the dérive is an act of remembrance and citation - it is an experience in which the dériviste remembers a past that has never happened and cites from the book of life which has never been written. Here we must think of Benjamin’s "Theses on the Philosophy of History", in which he suggests that the true historian is that person who "reads what has never been written" (see Agamben, 1999a: 158). If we add to this the earlier Agamben’s thoughts on Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence (Agamben, 2000: 79), we may also say that to engage in the remembrance of what has never happened is also to engage in an experience of ‘the return of the new’. The significant point is that in the dérive, the dériviste does not abandon the potentiality not to be. Like Herman Melville’s Bartleby figure, the dériviste would fulfill the messianic task in an act of accomplished nihilism wherein he or she would summon all of her or his potential not to be, constructing the situation on this point of indifference between potentiality and impotentiality (Agamben, 1999a: 253).

26. Concerned not with actual existence or non-existence of the urban everyday, but its potentiality - insofar as it can be or not be - the dériviste is not a subject in an indissoluble relation to its world. Nor is she or he simply like the figure of Zarathustra in Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo who, to an unheard-of degree, says and does No to everything, "to everything to which one has hitherto said Yes" and none the less becomes the "Yes to all things" (Nietzsche, 1992: 77). Rather, the dériviste is to be more accurately compared to the Bartelby figure who says "I would prefer not to" and thereby maintains him or herself in the experience of suspension, not thought of as indifference, but as an experience of potentiality (Agamben, 1999a: 254). Raoul Vanegeim at the fifth conference of the SI, comes close to articulating this experience when he says:

It is a question not of elaborating the spectacle of refusal, but rather refusing the spectacle. In order for their elaboration to be artistic in the new and authentic sense defined by the SI, the elements of the destruction of the spectacle must precisely cease to be works of art. There is no such thing as situationism or situationist work of art. Once and for all.… Our position is that of combatants between two worlds - one that we don’t acknowledge, the other that does not yet exist. (see Sussman, 1989: 9-10).

In Agamben’s terms, this statement may be understood as an expression of the experience of potentiality. In one and the same instant, it is an experience of not being bound to act according to the power of the spectacle and being able to act otherwise (or not at all) (1999a: 262). To attempt to remain within the lexis of the situationists, it might be said that in the derive, the dériviste engages in a détournement of that which has never been. In this case détournement may be understood as a mode of ‘citation’ in which one approaches the most extreme possible approximation of a world of becoming to a world of being. The works of such a psychogeographer would constitute for Agamben the only superior counter-force to all will to the annihilation of life - as evidenced in the Spectacle.

Notes on Practice

27. As someone who has over the last ten years had the privilege of being involved in the making of a number of large international performances, I am mindful of the difficulty involved in not just the conceptual stages of the work, but, to an even greater extent, its realisation. I am aware that one can often be too heavy handed and literal in translating concepts into performance. For example, if the limit point of distress or despair is the psychological premise-state (ie. the state of mind after the trial of nihilism) upon which the planning and work is to proceed, there will always be a temptation to be too heavy-handed and forced in the way in which ideas are transposed into performance (ie. to subject an audience to more than it can bear). In particular I am thinking of the fine line that exists between creating environments of fear and terror (or at least the perceived threats of terror) from, say, one of horror. Unlike an environment of fear and terror, an environment of horror does not correspond to that which is bad for us or that which would jeopardise our interests. Thus, in this case it is not a question, from the audience’s point of view, of having to bear a series of misfortunes or dangers without weakening, or having to suffer so much anguish that they do no have any room left for pleasure.

28. In my own attempts at creating a pure mise en scène in the context of an anti-architectural performance ('Gravity Feed'), it has to be said that the interest in mental states being projected onto and from forms and objects with the hope of having those forms consumed (making them signal through sacrificial flames as Artaud described it) has roots which go back to 18th century architecture. Moving from a classical theory of architecture which projected an idealised body onto the building, 18th century architecture saw buildings as objectifying various mental and physical states of the body. This idea has been extended in more recent years in the projects of architects such as Coop Himmelblau whose buildings are seen to be like machines for the generation of a whole range of psychological responses. In these later ideas it not simply that we project mental states onto a passive environment, be it urbane or rustic, but that states of mind get their force in that environment. Perhaps no-one has expressed these thoughts more clearly than Alphonso Lingis. According to him, "emotions get their force from the outside, from the swirling winds over the rotating planet, the troubled ocean currents, the clouds hovering over the depths of empty outer space" (Lingis, 2000: 18). Himmelblau can use this same biomorphic language to describe an entire city, a "city that throbs like a heart", "cavernous, fiery, smooth, hard, angular, brutal, round" etc (Vidler, 1999: 70-75).

29. In considering Agamben thoughts concerning the ‘constructed situation’, I am reminded of some of the discussions that I have been involved in while making of a number of performances. This is to say, in talking about the desire to create an ambience in which there would be a feeling of total horror, behind this there also has been the more primary target of creating a pure mise en scène. That is to say, to put it in Agamben’s terms, there was the desire to create a situation that would communicate nothing to its audience except communicativity itself. The interest in horror as a state of mind has not simply arisen because of a sadistic desire on the part of the collaborators (although I have to admit there has been a little of that) but more so because what we understood to be left of life after the trial of nihilism is death. In this regard we took Joseph Beuys to be our guide: the post- Second World War ‘social sculpturer’, who referred to the fatal character of the times that we live in as "death" (Ulmer, 1987, 238 -239). As we understood it (and here we were referencing Bataille), the lure of the void and ruination associated with accomplished nihilism and death does not correspond in any way to a diminished vitality: "this vertigo, instead of bringing about our destruction, is ordinarily the prelude to the happy explosion - which is the festival" (Bataille, 1993: 108).

30. In fact where one is attempting to construct an environment of horror, the attraction and fascination in that environment results from the fact that the audience can take pleasure in the feeling of loss or endangerment given to them in the midst of their situation. For example, in some of the works that I have been involved in, there has been a desire on the part of the collaborators to subject the audience to a feeling of total horror (at the time of making these works the collaborators were drawing on conceptual sources such as Bataille, Kristeva and Lingis). In these works, which have been classified as a form of architectural theatre but which more accurately may be termed anti-architectural performance, the feeling of horror has been conveyed by means of the primary elements of light, sound and movement, which combine to create an overall ambience of horror. Once a strong ambience has been created and there is an active audience - it is simply a matter of finding an overall rhythm to the performance, building in layers of movement and punctuating periods of sustained high energy with stillness. And of course, and probably most importantly, there is the requirement that energy be transacted between the performers and audience. Having said that it always seems to be the case in these works that focus on the detail of what is taking place is less important than the psychological states and the ways in which these psychological states alter an audience's relation to the environment.

Conclusion

31. The construction of situations in the urban environment is not based on the empirical investigation of a town-planner, but rather a poetical receptiveness to the event of language and to the pure mise en scène of the urban setting. Plato banned the poet from the Republic out of fear that he or she could ruin the city. What would he have thought of the proposal that the city be built by poets? If Agamben’s reading of our lived experience is correct, it is only the work of this poetic reception of being that can operate as a superior counter-force to the deadening affects of bourgeois city-life, given over as it is to market driven forces in which spaces become ‘abstract’ commodities monopolised by the highest bidder, and where the weekly attendance at an auction becomes the most intense experience that can be hoped for.

 

William McClure is an artist, philosopher and lawyer. He has been the collaborative director for Gravity Feed’s works: Host (performed in Paris 2002), Tabernacle, In the House of Skin and The Gravity of the Situation. He was dramaturge for Legs on the Wall’s Runner’s-Up (performed internationally in 2002-3). He directed Sue-Ellen Kohler’s Premonition, and co-directed Sue-Ellen Kohler’s and Sandra Perrin’s BUG, and Stalker’s Angels ex Machina (performed internationally (1998-2001). He has written articles and lectured in the area of performance and architectural-theatre. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Sydney and is a teacher in Law at the Sydney Institute of Technology. Currently he holds a Visiting Fellowship at the ANU and is working on Gravity Feed’s latest project Monstrous Body. Email: williammcclure@hotmail.com

Bibliography

Agamben, G. (2000) Means without End: Notes on Politics. trans. V. Binetti and C. Casarino, Minneapolis: Uni. of Minnesota Press.

________ (1999a) Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy. ed. and trans. D. Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford Uni. Press.

________ (1999b) The Man Without Content. trans. G. Albert, Stanford: Stanford UP.

________ (1995) The Idea of Prose. trans. M. Sullivan and Whitsitt, Albany NY: SUNY P.

Arendt, H. (1993) Men in Dark Times. Harcourt Brace & Company: Orlando.

Bataille, G. (1993) The Accursed Share Vol. II & III. trans. R. Hurley, New York: Zone Books.

Blisset, L. (1994) Guy Debord is really dead. www.lutherblisset.net.

Breton, A. (1972) Manifestoes of Surrealism. trans. Richard Seaver, H.R Lanem, Ann Arbor: Uni of Michigan Press.

Debord, G. (1998) Commentaries on the Society of the Spectacle. trans. M. Imrie, Verso: London.

________ (1981) Situationist International Anthology. trans. K. Knabb, Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets.

________ (1970) Society of the Spectacle. trans.(unauthorized) Black and Red, Detroit: Black and Red.

Deladurantaye, L. (2000) ‘Agamben’s Potential’, Diacritics 30.2. 3-24.

Gravity Feed URL: http://www.gravityfeed.org/

Greil, M. (2001) Lipstick Traces: A Secret History of the Twentieth Century. London: Faber and Faber.

Heidegger, M. (1982) On The Way To Language. New York: Harper & Row.

Hussey, A. (2002) The Game of War: The Life and Death of Guy Debord. London: Pimlico.

Kaprow, A. (1996) Assemblage, Environments and Happenings. New York: Harry N. Abrams.

Lingis, A. (2000) Dangerous Emotions. Berkley: Uni. of California Press.

Lyotard, J-F. (1991) The Inhuman. trans. G. Bennington and R. Bowlby, Stanford: Stanford Uni. Press.

________ (1988) The Differend: Phrases in Dispute. trans. G. Van Den Abbeele, Minneapolis: Uni. of Minnesota Press.

Matta-Clark, G.www.guggenheimcollection.org/site/artist_works_105A_0.html

Nietzsche, F. (1992) Ecce Homo. trans. R.J. Hollingdale, New York: Penguin.

Plant, S. (1995) The Most Radical Gesture: The Situationist International in a postmodern age. London: Routledge.

Richter, H. (1997) dada art and anti-art. trans. D. Britt, London: Thames & Hudson.

Sussman, E. (1989) "Introduction", on the Passage of a few people through a rather brief moment in time: The Situationist International 1957-1972. Cambridge, Mass: Mit Press.

Turrel, J. www.rodencrater.org

Vidler, A. (1999) The Architectural Uncanny: Essays in the Modern Unhomely. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ulmer, G. (1987) Applied Grammatology: Post(e)-Pedagogy from Jacques Derrida to Joseph Beuys. Baltimore: John Hopkins Uni. Press.

© borderlands ejournal 2004

 

To top of page to top of page spacer
Imagemap
ISSN 1447-0810